Ron Silliman’s latest musing on trivia dressed up as poetry uses the idea of narrative to add William Stafford to his enemies list, the so-called “School of Quietude.” Silliman attacks Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark” as a “high point of American kitsch” that “uses plot to set up the arch-silliness” of the poem’s penultimate line, which according to Silliman is “a perfect instance of feigned & posed seriousness & just possibly the single most pompous line ever written.”
Okay. He dislikes Stafford’s poem, as any reader is entitled to do. He also attacks a poem from Robert Hass’s new book, which I haven’t read and so can’t comment on. But let’s look at what Silliman presents as a preferable alternative — a kind of poetry that uses narrative in a non-quietudinous way.
Even a poem like Aram Saroyan’s
has a beginning, middle and end. Engaging the history of typography, it has a social context and makes a point. One might even see in Saroyan’s humor here the same flash of personality one intuits from “I thought hard for us all” (except which poet would you rather spend time talking to at a party?). Strictly as a narrative poem, on the same terms as Stafford or Hass, Saroyan’s is a far more efficient use of language if that is a goal.
Silliman’s snide dismissal of Stafford—who I spent time with at parties and whose sensibility is infinitely more interesting than Saroyan’s, a man I know only via print—is a typical side-effect of his quasi-religious commitment to empty cleverness. It’s only this devotion that could lead Silliman to place a man who risked ostracism as a conscientious objector during WWII and who wrote some of the most morally challenging poems of the post-war period.
One has the right, I think, to ask what Silliman has ever risked? There is, of course, his audacious use of “thru” for “through,” his adventurous brandishing of the ampersand, and his daring interspersal of “=” signs within words like “language” and “Philadelphia.” See some of his online poems and decide for yourself if he is, in fact, the Criss Angel of poetry.
And what do the poets he admires — oh, let’s take Aram Saroyan as an example — ever risk? If your taste for risk reaches no farther than the typographic, then one would have to answer: Nada. They all seem to be eighth-year grad students on perpetual Spring Break. They specialize in parties, evidently, and publish their bar-side napkin-jottings in each other’s magazines.
My argument would be that these shared levels are only a few of the many pleasures of the Saroyan poem – the play of the letter n as it appears to the mind both before and aft the root m triggers a level not even present in the two sermons. [He means Stafford’s and Haas’s poems. —JH] Saroyan’s work is the most complex of the three, and once you realize that, the awkwardness of the others becomes their overwhelming feature.
Note that all the pomposity emanates from Silliman here; Saroyan’s cipher makes no claims at all.
But if this so-called poem “triggers a level” (whatever that means) in your — what, exactly? (mind? consciousness? kidneys?) — well, let’s say your consciousness, then Silliman may welcome your company. He may even allow you to pitch your tent beside his, far from the “School of Quietude,” out on the rugged frontier of the avant-garde.